- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 12, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska’s prison system is struggling to deliver mental health services to inmates who need it because of persistent staffing shortages, corrections officials said Wednesday.

Prison administrators told a legislative committee they’re still trying to fill nursing, psychology, psychiatry and counseling positions and face the same turnover problems that have plagued the front-line security ranks. “We are very short staffed” due to competing with higher-paying private employers that offer lower caseloads and less stress, said Dr. Alice Mitwaruciu, the department’s acting behavioral health administrator.

She added that some would-be employees avoid prison jobs because they’re worried inmates will threaten to make false reports about them, which could threaten their professional licenses. The Department of Correctional Services also pays less than other state agencies, such as probation and parole, which offer similar jobs, she said.

Roughly 1,100 of Nebraska’s 5,300 prisoners suffer from a serious mental illness and many also have developmental disabilities, said former state Sen. Steve Lathrop, an attorney for the committee.

State law requires the corrections department to provide the same standard of care available outside of prison, which Dr. Randy Kohl, the department’s recently retired medical services director, believed was the case. However, he acknowledged that the department would do a better job with more employees.

“There were some delays (in treatment), but these (cases) were all triaged based on the needs of patients,” he said.

Assistant State Ombudsman Jerall Moreland said inmates are having difficulty getting access to treatment they need before completing their sentences.

Mitwaruciu said the department has focused on inmates who are psychotic, bipolar or afflicted with other major mental health problems. The shortage is so severe that department administrators haven’t had time to determine how many employees they actually need, she said.

Nebraska’s prison system has faced a litany of problems in recent years, including inmate assaults, the escape of two convicted sex offenders and a deadly riot that left two inmates dead. Many lawmakers contend that overcrowding and staffing shortages are to blame because they’ve contributed to burnout and an increase in less experienced employees.

The department also faced criticism for its handling of Nikko Jenkins, an inmate who was released straight of out solitary confinement in July 2013. The following month, he went on a 10-day killing spree in Omaha that left four people dead.

Last month, corrections director Scott Frakes unveiled a state budget request that includes $15.6 million to hire more employees. If approved, the proposal would allow the department to hire roughly 165 full-time employees in a variety of jobs and boost the department’s total general budget to nearly $223 million.

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